Character  &  Context

Hate: Dropping the H-Bomb

Image of four type pieces spelling out HATE

“Hate” – the term is becoming an all too familiar. “Hate group” members and sympathizers use “hate speech” and commit “hate crimes.” Recent events on the worldwide sociopolitical landscape have revealed the often intensely visceral reactions people have when they see actions that they consider to be hate. The three little words – “I HATE you” – can damage interpersonal, intergroup, and international relationships in ways that “I am angry at you” or “I dislike you” cannot begin to match. Yet, despite the massive social and emotional payload that the “H-bomb” appears to carry, psychological research intended to get at what hate really is and how it works has been remarkably limited.

Having conducted some hate research, we no longer find this surprising. Over a decade ago, we suggested that hate (and love) is best understood as a motive . That is, in contrast to the common idea that hate is a unique emotional experience, we suggested that, at its core, hate refers to the desire for a target to experience harm. This goal, we argued, can be energized by a variety of different emotions such as anger, disgust, contempt, and loathing. Testing our proposal has proven challenging, however. Experimental inductions of hate can unearth an ethical minefield. Moreover, we quickly learned that many people are reluctant to label their own personal experiences as “hate.”

Despite these challenges, we persevered in our research efforts because we felt that hate has a powerful and widespread impact on our world. In a set of four studies using varying methodologies across different cultural groups, we were able to show that people do indeed perceive “hate” to be most clearly characterized by the desire to see another experience harm. Of course, we recognize that showing the centrality of motivation in lay perceptions of hate is only a first step, so we also have been attempting to demonstrate the motivational nature of hate more directly. However, verifying that hate is a motive is hardly the ultimate goal – instead, we see it as a stepping stone toward better understanding the powerful implications associated with both being a hater and being hated. Very simply, if hate’s core is the desire for a target to experience harm, then haters are potential perpetrators, and hated targets are potential victims.

As with any topic that has not received much research attention, there are many unanswered questions. For example, we still need to understand more about how hate is triggered and why it can be so enduring. We need to learn more about the role emotions play in the waxing and waning of the hate motive. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to understand when the goal of harming the other can be reduced or eliminated. Especially in those cases where hate is a means to some other end, it may be possible for hate to dissipate or be bypassed.

In our own research we are currently exploring one additional issue – one that can arguably impede investigating all others. Specifically, as we noted earlier, many people seem reluctant to even acknowledge that they have ever hated someone. For example, in one of our earliest studies, we simply asked participants to recall and describe an experience in which they hated someone, which we defined as “the desire to diminish or destroy the other’s wellbeing.” Fully 50% claimed that they had never had such an experience. As comforting as it might be simply to take respondents’ denials at face value, when a second sample of participants was asked to provide descriptions of events in which they wanted another person to experience harm, virtually everyone was able to relate such an incident. The difference? In the second study, we did not label such experiences as “hate.” Thus, although people seem relatively willing to acknowledge “strong dislike,” or “being really angry,” or “experiencing intense negative energy,” many seem hesitant or downright defensive when it comes to acknowledging hate. Why does the word “hate” seem so toxic to so many?

We suspect that part of the answer may lie with the conceptual overlap between hate and evil, which is rooted in the perception of intentional, unjustified harm. Because it is only a small attributional step to infer that those who do “evil” are “evil,” the label has profound social implications. “Evildoers” are the worst of the worst – they are beyond redemption and, at least in the eyes of those doing the labelling, they are justifiably hated. Thus, being seen as evil raises the specter of social rejection and exclusion. It is tantamount to God’s marking of Cain – the first murderer in the Hebrew scriptures – to ensure that Cain would wander the earth as an outcast.

If hate is characterized by the intentional desire to harm another and evil is defined as the intentional desire to harm another without justification, then hating someone puts the hater one “good enough” justification away from being “evil.” Therefore, acknowledging hating someone is a risky proposition and, if hate cannot be denied, it most definitely needs to be justified. We are currently testing the idea that, when people feel hatred towards another, they will have a greater desire to avoid the painful prospect of social rejection by distancing themselves from the “hate” label, justifying their feelings of hatred, or finding some alternative way to reassert their social acceptability. We suspect that such self-protective reactions may keep people from recognizing, acknowledging, and dealing with hate directly when they experience it. A plausible worst-case scenario is that they are more likely to “snap” in a seemingly sudden outburst of harmful behavior and, if they access potential sources of help and support at all, they do so only after the damage has already been done.

Notwithstanding our observation that research on “hate” proper is in short supply, there is certainly no shortage of psychological research focused on various forms of interpersonal and intergroup hostility and aggression. We do not presume that hate research inspired by our conceptual approach can supplant this important work. Rather, we believe that understanding the causes and consequences of a common thread (the desire to harm) can complement and enhance existing theories and research. In particular, we hope that understanding hate as a “call to action” can demystify its toxic radioactive quality and ultimately help construct a blueprint for how we can defuse the “H-bomb”.


Authors John K. Rempel and Christopher T. Burris are Professors of Psychology at St. Jerome’s University

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